Has Sony's decision to go Android been Smart?
What is Android TV?This is far from Sony’s first dalliance with the Android operating system, so popular in smartphones, tablets and media boxes. In fact, it’s almost exactly three years, to the day, since we reviewed the Sony Google TV Box, a device with loads of promise but left hamstrung by a lack of dedicated apps. Fast forward to 2015 and instead of developing their own smart TV system – ala LG and Samsung – Sony has turned to Google as a more off-the-shelf solution. It makes sense in many ways; it’s cheaper, for one, and since Android went to version 5 (Lollipop) it’s more TV/AV friendly, plus it should tie in nicely with Sony’s Xperia ecosystem. The potential pitfalls are that there are still relatively few Android apps optimised for TV remote controls and that Sony has a bit of a habit of making their user interfaces more cumbersome than needs be. So read on to see how Sony’s first-gen of Android Smart TV works out.
ControlThe obvious place to start here is with Sony’s specially designed, One Flick Remote Control. This little device snuggles in to the palm of the hand and offers a quicker means of navigation and search than a standard TV remote can offer. Right were your thumb naturally rests is a touch-pad interface which allows for fast scrolling through screens and menus. By dragging up from the bottom you bring forth the ‘Discover Menu’ to the bottom of the screen and there are various key controls mapped around the facia for things like volume control, power and channel skipping. The One Flick also features a microphone which can be used to search for apps and content. The problem we have with the One Flick is that bringing up the Discover menu is nowhere near as easy as it could be and sometimes took us several tries. As an attempt to replace a touchscreen, it is only partially successful but the ‘voice stuff’ is quite cool.
Fortunately you're not limited to the One Flick
Ahh, but this is Android so you’re not limited to using the One Flick and we found the all-round best Android experience was had using an Airmouse which had both a full qwerty keyboard and gyroscopic abilities, allowing you to move a cursor smoothly and rapidly across the screen. We also paired the TV with an Amazon Fire TV Stick remote and a Logitech K400 wireless keyboard. The K400 actually beat the Airmouse in terms of functionality but it’s not like holding a remote control. An excellent feature for gamers is the fact you can use a DualShock 4 with Sony’s Android TV OS but, again, you’re not limited to that as you can also pair compatible Bluetooth games controllers with the TVs although, beyond the Fire TV Games Controller, we can’t vouch for others working.
Home pageBefore we get in to the nitty-gritty, let’s talk a bit of Smart TV philosophy. Where LG, Samsung and, to a slightly lesser extent, Panasonic have put their respective Smart TV capabilities right in front of the user from the moment they switch on the set, Sony hasn’t. That means the owner will need to go looking and we think that’s a mistake. Sure, it’s just one press of a button to get to the Home Menu or Discover Bar but it’s a barrier some will never cross. Sony needs to find a way of integrating Android directly in to the switch-on stage without it looking daunting or over-bearing and we’d suggest a serious look at how it’s achieved in Tizen and WebOS…
The Home Screen, itself, is actually pretty well planned and easy enough to navigate. There’s a content discovery bar, up top, with suggestions presented from YouTube, Google Play Movies, TV Music and Games plus some tutorial videos from Sony on how to make the most out of their new Smart TV. Below that are rows for featured apps, Inputs, Apps and Games and the interface is attractive and colourful without getting in your face. If we have a criticism, it’s that there is just a little too much page scrolling than you would ideally like but, then, there’s a lot of bases to cover and it’s nothing compared to what lies beneath…
Discover bar(s)Uggh, Sony, what were you thinking with this? The Discover Bar ‘shortcut’ is a lesson in accessibility and how not to do it; the idea is decent enough but the execution is lacking. You summon the bar by either hitting the relevant button on a standard TV remote or by swiping up on the touchpad of the ‘One Flick,’ except, as alluded to above, it can take several flicks. There upon you will be presented with a bar which has various content layers. By default, it’s fully ten layers deep with areas such as Digital TV, Radio, YouTube, Video apps, Picture albums and Android apps covered; this is madness as a) it’s not transparently a scroll up/down menu so a lot will miss it and b) there are just far too many layers to make them either time-saving or easy to access. Yes, you can edit layers out but by the time most people will have found that out – the option is right at the bottom of your deep sea voyage of discovery – they will have given up on it. A total rethink is needed here, we’re afraid.
Optimised AppsWe got the greatest amount of use from the pre-loaded, special edition Netflix and Amazon Instant Video apps that are both capable of delivering Ultra HD 4K video content. It has also been confirmed that the Sony TVs, from the X85C series, and up, will get an update to allow HDR content to be displayed but that didn’t happen in time to make this review; presumably once Netflix launches its HDR service they will be made compatible on there too. Both worked very well, although the Netflix app was noticeably slower than other 4K TVs we’ve tested to reach 2160p. One of the step-ups Android has allowed Sony, over their previous Smart TV platforms, comes with the fact it can cope with apps running in the background so you can come out of Netflix to do/watch something else and go straight back in instantaneously.
If you’re totally reliant on a standard TV remote, it probably pays to take a look at the Sony Select section of the home screen, as it features a number of apps optimised for that means of control but they are a bit thin on the ground. Better still is the modified Google Play Store which has been given dedicated sections including TV Remote Games, Casual for gamepads and Action for Gamepads alongside the usual glut of apps. It has to be said that there aren’t all that many that are conventional remote control friendly but you should be able to get by, with many, using the One Flick.
Sideloaded appsThe easiest way to install Apps not available from Sony or the Google Play Store is via a USB stick. Download the apk to the stick, insert stick in to TV, use ES File Explorer (available free on Google Play and other file explorers are available) to navigate to apk and install. You will also need to allow ‘Unknown Sources’ in the Security & Restrictions area of the Settings Menu. You could also install a third party app store but we’re not great fans of those.
It runs KODI better than your average Android Box
Sony Android TV KODIYes, the Sony Android TVs will run KODI and you can download it from the Play Store. It runs very well, in fact, with the processor and on-board RAM well up to the task. The downside of using these TVs, as opposed to the better dedicated boxes, is the fact there is no ‘special’ hardware support for the processor so you won’t get the smoothest video playback across all sources. To be fair, if you set KODI to ‘sync playback to display,’ it will be good enough for most and the fact is, most Android boxes can’t do it either and these Sony’s are a huge step up on almost all those 50 quid boxes you see on ebay and Amazon for KODI.
Media PlaybackThe native Google Video app isn’t all that great and struggles to play some files we would have expected most Smart TVs to handle. We would suggest installing MX Player or VLC for Android – or both, where a wider selection of codecs and containers are covered. In fact, if you know your way around Android, and it’s countless selection of apps, you can pretty much play any media you can think of through the Sony Android TVs.
TV Side View AppNot only does SideView afford you an alternative remote controller with full button, keyboard or touch interface but it will present you with a suped-up EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) for all of the major UK TV platforms (Freeview, Freesat, Sky, Virgin, BT). It will also allow you set recordings to a connected USB hard drive (Freeview and Freesat) and allow you to browse for more information on the content. You can search the corresponding EPG for future showings, look something up on IMDB, see and access anything related on YouTube and even initiate a web search, or even look it up on Wikipedia. All this can be done via a very effective voice search interface too. In fact, the new and improved SideView is definitely amongst the best TV apps out there at the moment and it’s going to take some beating.
GamesSony has something of a track record in the videogaming department, just in case you’ve never heard of a PlayStation. There is integration here with Sony’s PS NOW, which is a gaming rental service offering up PSN and PS3 games via streaming. Unfortunately there is no trial available to see how your network could cope, with regards to latency, and we don’t think the pricing is particularly favourable at £7.99, for the top titles, for a 30 day period or £4.99 for a couple of days gaming. You could go out and buy most of these second hand on disc, for less, and own them forever but maybe that’s an old fashioned view of things. It would, undoubtedly, be more attractive if there was an all-you-can-eat subscription service available, ala PlayStation Plus. The TVs can also pair with a DualShock 4 controller, for that complete PlayStation experience.
So you probably get the idea that we were too stingy for PS NOW but we did get to try out a few Android games, all in the call of duty you understand. You need to be aware that some games can take up a lot of the available storage (the X85 we used for the review) had 8GB so something like Asphalt 8, with its 1.5GB size, will soon start eating in to that. We’re fortunate in having a lightning fast internet connection so deletion and re-downloading isn’t an issue but that won’t apply to all. In terms of being able to run games, certainly the processing in the X85 series doesn't really seem up to it with some poor framerates when settings were medium or high on the more complicated games and even something like Minion Rush (for the kids, honest), ran choppily. Sony needs to look at improving the processing, and possibly at increasing RAM capacity in the 2016 models.
YouViewWe were hoping to include some coverage of the YouView service for Bravia TVs but it’s not quite ready for launch yet. Once it has, owners will be to utilise its recording and catch-up services with the star of the show being the 7-day scroll-bag EPG (Electronic Programme Guide), letting you travel back in time to view shows you might have missed. We use YouView on a daily basis and we know it’s good so it’s just a question of it being optimised to run on the Android TVs. Sony tell us they plan to launch 'imminently' (September 2015) so we’ll update our experiences once we’ve had the opportunity to try it out.
Any Issues?As you would expect from what is essentially Sony's first go at this, the Android TVs don't run perfectly all of the time and we encountered a few system freezes and two instances where the operating system failed to load at all, necessitating a hard reset (plug out and in). We think the system freezes during day-to-day use could be a result of the fact so many, non-system, apps can run in the background, thus using too much RAM, which appears to limited in any case. Sony really ought to build in some app-killing mechanism, or even a button on the remote or homescreen, to avoid the system running sluggishly. Other annoyances like the input selection menu sometimes taking an eternity to load or the fact the system can crash when changing audio outputs should be fairly simple to iron out. Our other niggles pertain to the sometimes over-complicated user interface and the remote and were covered above.
- A great range of apps
- More freedom than with other systems
- Gaming is well inegrated
- Some poor UI design choices
- Occasional freezes
- Lack of RAM
- One Flick remote isn't great
Sony Android Smart TV ReviewSony’s 2015 range of Bravia Android TVs are bristling with potential and are, already, brimming with features. The decision to go with Google pays dividends in providing a wide range of apps, albeit that the customised Play store contains nowhere near the amount the regular one does. You do have alternatives for getting virtually any Android app on to them but many end users are never going to find that out. The recommended set of apps readily available should be sufficient for most, however, and include 4K Ultra HD services from Netflix and Amazon with the latter very soon to be offering HDR content via the Sony’s.
It’s not all good, however, and an apparent lack of RAM can mean things run sluggishly from time to time, a matter confounded by the fact the software allows so many non-system apps to run in the background. We’re also not great fans of the One Flick Remote, either, which fails to live up to its moniker – at least for us – with a touchpad interface which singularly fails to replicate the accuracy of a touchscreen. The Android OS has always been built to cater to phones and tablets and it’s only gradually evolving in to one where you can wholly operate it with a conventional TV remote control. Fortunately, you can take control of Android through any number of alternative controllers and we found the experience that much better once we had done just that.
The main processing chips inside these Android TVs aren’t really up to the rigours of complex video games, which makes the fact that gaming is very well integrated that bit less worthy, but the running of other apps was generally very fluent. The capabilities of the native media players isn’t that great, in terms of codec and container support, but there will be a means by which you can play your files, somewhere, i.e. ‘there’s an app for that,’ but if you’re not an experienced Android user you may not find it.
Probably our main gripe with the entire implementation from Sony would be user interface related, with the Discover menu being the worst culprit. It is an object lesson in how not to make content easy to find, completely contrary to the idea behind it, so you might as well stick to the homescreen which is far better designed.
So, all in all, we think Sony has made a pretty successful first foray in to Android TV, with some caveats, but we still think they’ve done just about enough to merit an AVForums recommendation.
Ease of Use8
Media Playback Quality9
Applications - Software8
Applications - Hardware8
Voice and Motion Controls7
Our Review Ethos
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